It happened more than twenty-five years ago in New England, where Lutherans are about as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth. In his office, the pastor of a newly developing congregation received a telephone call. The caller had a simple question. “What is a Lutheranian?” she asked.
Overlooking that mispronunciation, the caller’s question is still a good and important one. Answering it isn’t some esoteric, theological head trip. After all, we are a Lutheran congregation, people who believe the Lutheran Confessions' understanding of Christian faith. If we can’t answer the question, “What is a Lutheran?” how Lutheran are we really?
On this Reformation Sunday, 2009, I want to talk with you about what a Lutheran is. For the historical background on Lutheranism and the Reformation, please take the red insert home with you today.*
But to answer our question, “What is a Lutheran?” I ask you to take a look at the bulletin cover. There, in addition to pictures of the Bible, of Martin Luther, and of Luther’s personal seal, you’ll also find three words printed over a single larger word. These convey what Lutherans see as the three foundational truths of Christian faith:
- Grace alone,
- Faith alone, and
- Scripture alone (or Word alone).
When the thirty-three year old German monk and priest, Martin Luther accidentally began the Reformation movement, he found himself addressing both a religious elite that no longer cared about the Word of God, choosing to replace it with their own supposed wisdom, and Christian masses whose allegiance was to the Church as an institution, a habit, rather than a personal fellowship with the living God.
No wonder that the elites hated Luther.
No wonder that the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, a loose confederation of states supposedly bound together by their allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church, put Luther under an imperial ban, meaning that any one was authorized to kill Luther on sight.
Luther’s faithful witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and to the authority of the Bible undermined those who wanted to replace Jesus with other Lords and the authority of the Bible with traditions and customs that brought them comfort, control, or power.
But the experience of Luther and the other church reformers was nothing new. If you take time to read the Old Testament, you see a recurring pattern in the life of God’s chosen people, the Israelites or Jews. God would call them to repent, trust in Him for life, and follow Him, and the people, feeling weak or vulnerable or afraid, would do so. For a time. Then, once they got a little food in their bellies, a little tract of land to farm, a bit of wealth or power, they would mostly forget God.
Or, they would make God over into an indulgent Santa Claus who didn’t care if they repented, believed, or followed, so long as they had a good time.
Or, they would tinker with their faith, adding their own rules, intermingling the worship of other deities, maybe ensconcing wealth as a sign of God’s favor and love.
It was to God’s people in these latter circumstances that God would send prophets to call people back to God.
We see this rejection of God and of God’s Word in the people Jesus confronts in today’s Gospel lesson from John. Just before our lesson, Jesus once more foretells His crucifixion and resurrection. Then Jesus lifts up those three distinctives of Biblical faith, three distinctives that would become the three cornerstone principles of Lutheranism. "Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in Him,” our lesson begins, “’If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Lutherans don't claim to have a corner on the truth market. But the Lutheran Confessions hold up certain truths which, often it seems, the world would rather forget.
Lutheran Christians believe that we are free from sin, death, and futility in our daily lives, first of all, through God’s grace alone. Jesus didn’t come to us and say, “Perform these religious acts and I will set you free from sin, death, and futile living.” Jesus came to us and offered new and everlasting life as a free gift, an act of charity from God.
Paul writes in the New Testament book of Romans, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly [that’s all of us apart from a relationship with Christ]…God proves His love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” The Greek New Testament word that is translated in our Bibles as grace is charitas, from which we get our English word, charity, a gift we cannot earn. We are saved by God’s grace alone.
The apostle John gets at this same reality in his first epistle, where he says, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
For the Christian, we believe, all depends on God's grace. Not our works. Nor our feelings. Not our thoughts. Only on God's grace. A friend of mine has the perfect response for those who ask Lutherans, “When were you saved?” “That’s easy,” my friend says, “on a hill outside Jerusalem two-thousand years ago.” What is a Lutheran? First of all, someone who believes that their salvation has nothing to do with them, but is a result of God’s grace, given in Christ, alone.
Lutheran Christians also believe we are saved through faith alone. Jesus told His fellow Jews that they would only be free to be the people of God if they persisted in trusting in Him.
Throughout the Gospel of John, we see Jesus described as the foundational Truth of the universe, God-in-the-flesh Who spoke creation into being. Life outside of a relationship with the God made known in Christ is a lie, disconnected from the only One Who can give us life.
That’s why, just a few verses after our Gospel lesson in John, Jesus will tell the same people that because they are unwilling to accept His Lordship and authority, His call to turn from sin and follow Him, they are really following a different father, “…[Y]ou cannot accept my word…” Jesus says, “[because] you are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in Him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.”
But faith, the gift God gives to those willing to receive it, can overcome what Martin Luther marked as our enemies—the devil, the world, and our sinful selves.
That’s why Jesus says elsewhere, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me…”
And to Martha, the sister of His friend Lazarus, Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will live forever.”
What is a Lutheran? It’s someone who believes that God’s grace is taken in hand by those who dare to trust—to have faith in--Jesus Christ alone.
Finally, Lutherans believe that we come to know God through the Word alone. Above all, we know God through “the Word made flesh,” Jesus, and also through the definitive, authoritative, inspired Word of God, the Bible, a library of books inspired by God the Holy Spirit.
In Luther’s day, the Church added to and ignored the witness of God about Jesus and the will of God found in the Scriptures. Luther said that the Church dared not do or say anything contrary to the will of God revealed to us in the Bible.
Luther believed Paul’s words to the young pastor Timothy found in the New Testament, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…”
We may want to know much more, but everything you and I need to know about God, about ourselves, about how to live, and about who can be trusted, is found within the covers of the Bible. Knowing this truth will set us free.
That’s why the Lutheran Confessions say, “We believe, teach, and confess that the…writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged…”**
We live in an era in which the Bible is routinely snubbed, dismissed, or misused. People ignore how unique and different the Bible is from all the other books of other religions.
The Bible isn’t the writing of just one person claiming a hotline to God, as is true of the books of Islam or Mormonism.
The Bible doesn’t claim to give us a means by which we can work or claw our way to heaven or a state of spiritual enlightenment, as is the case with eastern religions.
The Bible is a spiritually consistent revelation given by God to many people inspired by the Holy Spirit.
The Bible is a library of books that tell us how God reaches out to us, God saves us, God loves us, and how God wants to be reconciled to us.
And thousands of years of living with the Bible’s revelations of God, of Christ, and of the will of God have shown repeatedly that the Bible is more than just a collection of sixty-six ancient books.
It’s a book whose words from God have the power to change the lives of those who stand under their authority.
The New Testament book of Hebrews says, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit…able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
John ends the twentieth chapter of his Gospel by underscoring the life-giving power of the Bible, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
God saves through grace alone, faith alone, and Word alone.
It was true in 33AD, true in 1517, true today, and true for all time.
What is a Lutheran?
At the least, Lutherans are people who stake their lives on those truths.
And when the world rejects or demeans or tries to tell us to reject the Bible's witness to these three essential truths, we must say with Luther, “"Unless I am convinced by the testimonies of the Holy Scriptures or evident reason…I am bound by the Scriptures…and my conscience has been taken captive by the Word of God…I am neither able nor willing to [reject dependence on Scripture]…God help me.”
And may God help us. Amen
*You can read that here.
**This is from Part One of the Formula of Concord, one of the foundational confessional documents of Lutheranism.